WILD camping is on the rise around Scotland as more people holiday on home soil this summer. But what happens when you have all the gear and no idea? Especially when it comes to rustling up a decent meal under the stars.
Fear not, bushcraft expert Ray Mears has penned Wilderness Chef: The Ultimate Guide To Cooking Outdoors, which is packed with advice and top tips for would-be culinary adventurers when it comes to foraging and making fresh, natural food.
Think campfire, think bland and burnt? Mears would beg to differ. The recipes in his new book are gastronomic treats: Spanish omelette, spaghetti carbonara, Gurkha curry, chicken supreme, jagerschnitzel, clam chowder and even a roast dinner.
Mears, 56, discovered how to make many of these dishes from his travels around the world, coupled with self-taught basic meals from a lifelong passion for the great outdoors.
What do you need to know about Mears? Here’s the crib notes version. He grew up in the south of England, spending much of his childhood camping out in the North Downs, where he learned to track foxes in the surrounding woods.
His ambition had been to join the Royal Marines, but that dream was shelved after he fell short on the eyesight requirements. After leaving school, Mears worked briefly in an office job in London, before founding Woodlore, The School of Wilderness Bushcraft, in 1983.
Mears has an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject and has written a shelfful of books, including The Survival Handbook: A Practical Guide to Woodcraft and Woodlore. He has become a well-known face on our television screens since his debut in the BBC series, Tracks, in 1994.
In a 2001 programme, Ray Mears’ Adventure Special, he took the actor Ewan McGregor into the Honduran jungle on the trail of a lost civilisation of prehistoric people. His 2008 series, Ray Mears Goes Walkabout, saw him tour the Australian Outback.
Here Mears shares culinary titbits, ways to reconnect with nature, names the two Scots he would most love to have dinner with, alongside imparting life lessons and revealing his greatest fear.
Falling in love with the outdoors
I was inspired by tales of adventure and wanted to be outdoors at every opportunity. It reached out and grabbed me. I would camp out and build fires. The first thing I cooked was probably boiling up an Oxo cube for a drink – I still do that now.
In my early twenties, I became interested in wild fungi. We are familiar with wild fungi now but, in those days, everyone was terrified of it. I would see these things growing, knew you could eat some of them and wanted to learn how to tell them apart.
I was lucky because I went to Kew Gardens where there was a class run by a wonderful man called Dr Derek Reid. I was interested in the uses of fungi, not just what you can eat, but also the things you can do with them – medicine, fire lighting and dyeing.
A passion for fungi
Derek and I teamed up and did some courses together. He would concentrate on teaching people how to identify them and I would teach the uses. I was very lucky to have such a wonderful mentor to guide me into that world.
The first time I went out on a foray looking for mushrooms – it was a weekend and the instructions were to meet at a car park – nobody told me it was all day. Off we went, I filled my basket with mushrooms along with a few crab apples.
When we got back to the car park, it was announced: “We’ll have a spot of lunch and then move on somewhere else.” I was ravenous by this point. I hadn’t brought lunch and didn’t want to miss out on the afternoon session.
In those days, I kept a little Primus stove in my car. I had some olive oil and a packet of rice. I also had this basket full of mushrooms. That was a meal.
I started cooking and gradually this ripple went round the car park: “He is eating some of the mushrooms.” Someone plucked up the courage to go tell Derek that one of his students was eating the mushrooms.
Everyone was terrified I might have something poisonous in my basket. Derek came over to check and, of course, I didn’t. Then they all dived in and ate my food. I only got a tiny drop of lunch.
Food is important to us. If you have been out in the Scottish hills on a bad day and then come back to a campsite or hostelry to have a warming meal, how good do you feel after that?
We start where all cooking began, which is on a campfire in the embers, then on a stick and next in a pan, learning to make sauces and soups and how to bake. I learned a long time ago that if you’ve got virtually no ingredients or utensils, but you know what you’re doing, you can cook a meal.
My book has recipes from all over the world because we live as part of a multicultural society. While we hear tales of racism and the distance between cultures in the news, when it comes to food, it is a strong, unifying force and the place where we can come together.
I wanted to reflect that as best I could. Good food is important to morale and mood. It is a place to meet, talk, share company and experiences. When you cook outdoors, you tend to come together, it is much more social and a meal builds itself.
Ideal dinner party guests
Billy Connolly would be great around the table because you need a bit of humour. [The Orkney-born explorer] Dr John Rae for all his wonderful Arctic experiences. Rae was the unsung hero of the Arctic who discovered the Northwest Passage and the fate of the Franklin expedition.
It would be lovely to have some wild Scottish salmon or trout, perhaps some venison. In my book there’s a photograph of a wild brown trout caught in Perthshire two minutes before it went in the pan, being cooked with wild chanterelle mushrooms. It doesn’t get any better than that with a dram.
I believe it is important to celebrate and honour the ingredients we use, whether it is a vegetable or flesh or a mushroom. Everything has lived and had a life force within it, and it is incumbent upon the chef to honour that.
But it is more than that: it is the environment that provided them. It was the cleanest loch water you have ever seen, the wonderful sphagnum moss on the birch.
This is one of the things Scotland does so well. It is full of wonderfully clean, beautiful habitat that provides fantastic wild foods. It is important I say that because it is an example to the rest of the world about what is possible.
I love where I am in the High Weald, East Sussex. The broadleaf woodland in the south of Britain is very under-celebrated. As I’m talking to you, I’m standing under a walnut tree looking at a couple of walnuts growing.
In terms of wilder places outside of Britain, I love Borneo, South Africa, Australia. I am lucky. Bushcraft makes me feel at home in all these environments. There are lots of places I’d like to go back to and get to know better, but I don’t do that for pleasure – it is for work.
The message he hopes to impart
I want to encourage people to respect the environment and take care of it, not because they feel it is a worthy thing to do, but because they feel they are a part of it themselves.
My job is to reconnect people to nature and make them understand that in our blood and veins is raw nature. We should cease to feel that we are separate from it but rather understand we are a part of it and embrace that fact.
Even in the hearts of our cities, if you look between the paving stones, you will see wild plants growing. I teach people to value and respect nature because we ultimately depend upon it.
What I love doing is taking people into wild places and acting as the interface between myself and nature. Nature is the teacher – I just facilitate. I would like to take some of the world’s politicians into wild places, strip them away from all the things they hide behind and let nature into their heart.
Misconceptions about his work
I don’t like the term “expert” because I think when you say you’re an expert, the door shuts on knowledge. For me, this is a lifelong pilgrimage.
It is not about pitting yourself against nature. I mistrust anyone who, in a macho way, claims they can conquer anything in nature – it doesn’t work that way. All the people I think of as experts are quiet, humble and have had the wisdom to observe and learn from nature.
The coronavirus pandemic and a renewed connection to nature
People are finding that green spaces are important for their psychological welfare right now. I hope that will continue. We need to hang onto that.
Before the pandemic, great threats were facing the green belts around our cities. I hope that afterwards there will be more vocal voices saying: “Actually, that place kept me sane during this time and we have to preserve it for the next time a pandemic comes and for enjoyment in between.”
The state of the nation
When I watched news reports of people crowding the beaches in Bournemouth at a time when we are supposed to be maintaining social distancing, I was really angry. I went for a long walk and then I felt good again.
Across the country, people are fighting to keep their businesses alive, they are looking for the opportunity to get the country rolling again.
There are people in the NHS, the Fire Brigade and the Police, the delivery industry – and many others I haven’t mentioned – who, on a daily basis, are risking their welfare so the rest of us can maintain our distance and provide sufficient breathing space for the country to get over the disease, to reduce the effect of it and to find a vaccine.
Then all these idiots lose their heads, go out and party – it’s crazy. Most people are being really good, but it only takes a few to spoil it.
His greatest fear
One of the things we do outdoors is carve and use a knife. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of people in urban areas stabbing each other and the opportunities for young people to learn the confidence that comes with those [bushcraft] skills are diminishing.
That’s a great shame. It is important that, when somebody breaks a law, the law is sensible and that you don’t catch the good fish in the net along with the bad. We need wisdom in governance rather than knee-jerk reactions.
My greatest fear for the world is social media. Because we form opinions to be a part of the herd’s voice and we bleat together very quickly before we have considered wisely whether or not we have got all the facts at our disposal. I think that is very dangerous.
People are manipulating the herd through that and it is a very dangerous thing. I’m not part of a herd. I’m a wolf. Social media is a distraction and, when I talk to people about it, they say it is good and then, with the next breath, they say it wears them out and depresses them.
When we are dealing with a dangerous situation, like a dangerous animal, what tends to happen is people look at the danger, they look at the threat, and this fear grips them.
They get fixated on it because they don’t see the overall picture. They only see the threat. It grows in their mind and causes a panic. It is very important to maintain a wider focus on the world than social media provides.
A life philosophy
I think very much in the moment. I don’t look back or forward – I live now. That’s what we all need to do more. Now is the moment we have been gifted.
Foraging and cooking tips for beginners
Begin with a fire and a knife. Start simple. Learn slowly. Enjoy the journey and don’t worry about the destination. This is important. The key is to invest in knowledge. If you are going to forage, you need to know what you are foraging for.
I meet a lot of people who have learned from the internet – that is very dangerous. You can’t necessarily trust the source. A plant may be from the same genus but is a different species in another country and may not hold true for the version we have here.
In Scotland, there are a lot of chanterelles. Most errors with people eating poisonous things is usually Cortinarius, a toxic species of mushroom that is often mistaken for chanterelles, but they are actually very different.
The reason people get poisoned is that, when they are shown a true chanterelle, they don’t look closely enough at the details. The devil is always in the detail.
There is greater demand for bushcraft than there is availability of expertise, so you have to be very careful. Keep an open mind. I believe we are all gifted with the ability to detect nonsense when we encounter it – trust your inner voice.
Recipe: Campfire Bread
This is a widely used method of cooking, particularly popular among the First Nations in Canada, where it is a popular part of the seasonal goose feast Sikipwan. While a damper normally requires dry, warm ground for the cooking, this method can be used when the ground is damp or still covered in snow.
Makes 2 loaves
2 cups (250g) plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
About ⅔ cup (175ml) water, preferably warm
1. Take a green stick of a non-toxic wood such as birch. If possible, look for a stick that’s 5cm (2in) thick. If this is not possible, use a stick of thumb thickness. Point one end of the stick so that it can be pushed into the ground or snow. Shave off the bark for the top 30-40cm (12-16in) of the stick.
2. Mix the dry ingredients well and form into a dough by adding warm water little by little until a smooth, fairly dry dough forms. You may not need all the water, or you may need a drop more. The water can be added cold but better results are achieved with warm water.
3. Only a light kneading is required, just to bring the dough together. Form the dough into a ball and flatten into a flat loaf shape about thumb thickness high.
4. If using the thick stick, heat over the fire to scorching point and then form the dough over the end, wrapping it down the sides. If using a thin stick, heat to scorching point and roll a long thin sausage of dough between your palms. Wrap the sausage spiral fashion around the stick, leaving a small finger-wide gap between the turns of the spiral.
5. Plant the stick so that it is tilted towards the heat at the side of the fire. Rotate the stick as necessary to cook the dough evenly.
6. Serve with butter and jam or with fat collected from meat or fish that’s also cooking over the fire.
Wilderness Chef: The Ultimate Guide To Cooking Outdoors by Ray Mears is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20